Select Page

Nir’s Note: Extrinsic motivation is one of many cognitive biases. Discover other reasons you make terrible life choices like confirmation biashyperbolic discountingdistinction bias, fundamental attribution errorhindsight bias, and peak end rule.

Everyone struggles with dwindling or misplaced motivation from time to time, and I’m no exception. Thankfully, I’ve learned to overcome my penchant for procrastination: getting what I want done, even when I don’t feel like it. Learning the difference between the two kinds of motivation, extrinsic and intrinsic, made all the difference.

Take the dirty work of household chores. Today, I’m generally pretty good at keeping things tidy. As a married dad, I clean the dishes, take out the trash, and make sure the shower drain stays unclogged. Don’t be fooled though. I wasn’t always this way.

When I lived alone in my first apartment after high school, I’d let the dishes and laundry pile up. I figured if no one was coming over to visit, there was no reason to keep things neat. But if I had a big date that might end with a lady friend seeing my apartment, then you’d better believe I’d get things cleaned up.

My tendency to clean only when my smelly secrets might be exposed revealed my dependency on the extrinsic motivation of pleasing a potential visitor or at least making sure she didn’t run away in horror after seeing a trashy bachelor pad.

What is extrinsic motivation?

Extrinsic motivation relies upon factors outside ourselves, such as the approval of others, to provide an incentive for action. In my case, the extrinsic motivation to clean my apartment came in the form of the lost intimacy of a lady friend. If I wanted to find a mate, I needed to clean up my act.

Man cleaning up for date night due to extrinsic motivation.

What are some examples of extrinsic motivation?

Examples of extrinsic motivators include the pursuit of money, social status, praise, food, material wealth, or fame. Other examples of extrinsic motivators could include avoiding something unpleasant such as physical pain or embarrassment.

Growing up, whenever I’d bring home a medal, ribbon, or award, my mother always had the same bland reaction. She’d ask, “Did you have fun?” Then, she’d take the prize and stuff it in a box where no one would ever see it.

As a child, her reaction felt cold. Why didn’t she place the accolade on the mantle for everyone to admire, just like my friends’ parents did? Didn’t she want to brag that her son was now a Tae Kwon Do yellow-belt with one green tip?

When I graduated from college, I framed my diploma and sent it to my parents. I expected to see it proudly displayed in their home, but it wasn’t. It was on a shelf next to the box with my Tae Kwon Do certificate of achievement from the fifth grade. I asked her about why she never put my accomplishments on display, and she said something I’ll always remember: “Because that’s not why I love you.”

My mother knew something about motivation that I didn’t. Accolades, like trophies, diplomas, and awards, may give us a sweet sensation of superiority for a while, but the feeling quickly fades. The enjoyment of doing something for its own sake is a much longer-lasting source of motivation.

Relying on extrinsic motivation isn’t inherently bad, but it’s a pretty blatant quid pro quo. In fact, many of the things we do in life, we do because we want to get something in return for our efforts.

Our jobs pay us money, and we get to do things we normally would not do without compensation. Working for a living generally means doing something you don’t really enjoy so that you can feed yourself and your family. Hopefully, we’re left with enough extra money and leisure time to do something fun.

The modern economy depends on extrinsic motivation. However, extrinsic motivation has some shortcomings. Extrinsic motivation does not always work best; sometimes it can make us perform poorly at certain tasks.

For instance, studies reveal that high stake rewards, like cash bonuses, can hinder cognitive capacity because they shift our focus away from the task and onto the outcome. We can become preoccupied with rewards and all the things that come with them, such as our social status, instead of just doing the work. Extrinsic rewards also tend to narrow our focus on a defined goal and reduce our ability to see other possibilities, hindering creativity. Studies find people perform worse on tasks requiring imagination and ingenuity when they are offered extrinsic rewards, such as higher pay.

Extrinsic motivators are effective for clearly defined tasks that require little to no variation or creativity. For creative work, on the other hand, intrinsic motivation is better.

What is intrinsic motivation?

Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something for its own sake. With intrinsic motivation, we enjoy the action as its own reward, and we do it without taking money, fortune, or fame into account.

What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? Intrinsic motivation comes from an internal source, while extrinsic motivation comes from outside ourselves. Extrinsic and intrinsic motivation can be combined to produce excellent, synergistic results.

For instance, have you ever struggled with a task at first and then found yourself learning to love the challenge? In my case, writing has never come easily, even after publishing two bestsellers and countless articles.

In school, language arts was my worst subject and I hated writing research papers. There’d be no way I’d start an assignment without the threat of getting a bad grade. Without the extrinsic motivation of seeking validation from my teacher, I would never have written another word.

Today, however, I’ve learned to love writing. I do it in my spare time just for fun. As I found my own intrinsic motivation, my reliance on extrinsic motivation declined. I’ll discuss how to find intrinsic motivation in any task, even the ones you don’t enjoy, in just a bit. For now, it’s important to understand when each type of motivation can serve you in different ways as long as you use the right tool for the job.

Who proposed the concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

Self-determination theory (SDT) is among the most widely accepted theories of human motivation and flourishing. It has emerged as the leading psychological approach for understanding how intrinsic and extrinsic motivation work on the human psyche. As part of their theory, Doctors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci propose that intrinsic motivation comes from the desire to feel competency, autonomy, and relatedness. According to SDT, anything done purely out of extrinsic motivation will fail to meet these needs and hinder performance over the long-term.

What’s an example of the self-determination theory in action? Imagine you’ve always had a dream to work in healthcare. You desire to help people feel better and can’t wait to see smiles on children’s faces when you heal whatever ails them. That sounds wonderful until you realize that’s a tiny part of what being in medicine is really all about. Waiting for the approval of your patients to keep you motivated sounds altruistic, but it may not be enough to sustain you through medical or nursing school, not to mention the years of actually practicing medicine.

To sustain a long-term practice in healthcare, you need to first understand what the job is really like. Many bright-eyed doctors and nurses to-be enter the field for the external rewards of gaining their parents’ approval or the respect of their peers, but as they often find out, that feeling is temporary.

Rather, healthcare professionals who stick with the profession don’t do it for the praise of parents or patients. And while the pay is good, there are certainly more lucrative ways to make a buck, so that can’t be the only motivation either.

Instead, those who make a lifetime career in the field do it for the intrinsic rewards. They relish the challenge of mastering a difficult procedure, the autonomy to call the shots during high-stakes situations, and the connection with colleagues working together to heal hard cases or reform procedures at a hospital.

Unfortunately, as many in healthcare today will attest, the job often involves completing loads of paperwork, navigating bureaucracies, and managing difficult personalities, all of which rely upon heroic amounts of extrinsic motivation. According to Ryan and Deci’s theory, the less intrinsic motivation people find in the work they do, the less likely they are to remain in their chosen career.

How do you transition from extrinsic to intrinsic motivators?

What do you do if you can’t find the intrinsic motivation in your work? How do you learn to do something for its own sake without relying solely on extrinsic motivation?

As I describe in my book, Indistractable, the answer lies in finding a way to “play anything.” According to Georgia Tech professor, Ian Bogost, play doesn’t have to be fun. Play simply has to capture your attention long enough to help you do whatever needs to get done. Finding a way to play a task is how you find the intrinsic motivation to keep you going.

Bogost says there are two ways to learn how to play anything. The first is to focus more intensely on the task. Find the variability and surprise in what you’re doing. Next, Bogost advises against the Mary Poppins approach of adding a “spoonful of sugar” to a task, which is nothing but pinning an extrinsic reward to the end of a desired behavior. Bogost instead recommends adding constraints to make the task more interesting and meaningful. Every game has rules, and sometimes adding the rules yourself makes the task into more of a game.

For instance, when I transitioned out of my untidy manchild phase, I learned to find the intrinsic motivation in cleaning up by focusing more intently on the task at hand. I learned how others kept their homes clean and took an interest in methods to maintain a clean household. I remember taking a minute to appreciate the way IKEA thoughtfully designed it’s houseware to keep everything in its place and ogled at how amazingly well put together the furnished rooms in their stores looked.

Then I added constraints. I wondered how many individual food items I really needed in my home to feed myself for a week. How many plates and utensils were necessary? I tried to determine the minimum pieces of furniture necessary to ensure my apartment still felt cozy. Getting rid of the extra stuff started me down the path to cleanliness and paid dividends in that it made my home easier to clean. Then, I added more constraints, like challenging myself to see how much cleaning I could do in 15 minutes. I’d set a timer and promise myself I’d do no more than 15 minutes worth of tidying up to see how much I could do before the alarm rang. Adding a constraint adds challenge, which the brain registers as play rather than drudgery.

Can you really turn any task into play? It sounds crazy, but chances are many of the things you wouldn’t do unless you were paid big bucks, someone else already enjoys doing.

Making someone coffee? Not unless you made me do it! But my bean-obsessed friend, Jonathan, would gladly pull you the perfect espresso. He’s learned to play the game of coffee-making. Ask me to knit you a sweater? Not unless you paid me cash money in advance! But my friend Leslie would complete the tedious task and thank you for the opportunity.
Once we understand when to rely upon the different kinds of motivation, we can use extrinsic and intrinsic motivation in concert. Most importantly, we can learn to do tasks we want to do consistently by making them less taxing. It’s all a matter of appreciating the details, finding the surprises, and playing with the constraints. We can turn just about any previously difficult task into play so we can be the kind of people we want to be. And if we’re lucky, and keep our apartments clean, we can also be the kind of people others want to be with as well.
If you found this guide for understanding extrinsic and intrinsic motivations useful, I hope you’ll share it with others. Perhaps you’d like to introduce the concept to a close friend, your boss, or a team you’re collaborating with? If you’d like more science-based insights on motivation, click here or check out my other articles below.


Struggling with misplaced motivation? Learn how to get what you want done, even when you don't feel like it.